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How Reading Climbed the Table: An Unfinished Theory

xG shows that Mark Bowen’s Reading has been finishing its chances effectively while Jose Gomes’ Reading struggled to do so.

Reading v Derby County - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images

Reading Football Club are up to the dizzying heights of 14th in the table (please, everyone make sure to take things slow and stay hydrated) on the back of three successive victories and four shutouts. As happens under the euphoria of breathing such rarefied air, fans have taken to shouting Mark Bowen’s name to the heavens above, an act of gratitude for the altitude he has sherpa’d us up to.

As many are quick to say, managing a football club is a “results business.” Positive results bring about positive feelings for the manager, so Bowen basks in the plaudits for the time being, and we all pretend there weren’t a lot of people ready to cut him loose after the consecutive draws to Stoke and Barnsley that preceded this run.

I, however, would like to proffer a different answer as to how Reading has climbed the league table (and, hopefully, only begun to climb).

Before I do, I should clarify a few things about myself and how I view the game that may separate us in this discussion: 1) I put most of what happens in football on the players. I credit them most when things are going well, I blame them most when it goes wrong. I give them the most responsibility for results, whatever those results may be. Judging by a Twitter poll I ran back in October, that puts me in the majority.

2) I put almost zero credence in talk of “confidence.” It too often seems to me the result of fans looking for easy answers to matters which can appear inexplicable. (“How could he not have scored that!?” “He must be lacking in confidence… and from his lacking in confidence he did not turn his foot one degree farther inward and dip his toes five degrees farther down.”) Judging by how often I see the word on Twitter before, during, and after Reading matches, this puts me in a shrinking minority.

So there we are: I want to talk about a particular improvement in the execution of the players and give them credit for it. I do not want to put it down to confidence. (You’re welcome to stop reading now if you’d like.)

There are two things I hold to be true about football, above all else. One of those is the reason I think Reading have climbed the league table: football is finishing.

(The other is “football is cruel.” Something we surely all know and do not need to dwell on.)

After 11 games in the 2019/20 Championship season, the Jose Gomes-led Royals sat in 22nd place on eight points, 12 points from the playoffs. In the 13 league games under Mark Bowen, they’ve picked up 24 points to land in 14th place, only seven points from the playoffs. But how have they done so?

Other than Mark Bowen being an angel sent to make all of our Christmas wishes come true, I mean.

After Bowen’s 11th game in charge, I broke out some numbers for each manager’s 11 league games in charge. In the table below, blue marks the better number.

These tables use Infogol for xG (expected goals). Real quick, for any unaware: xG is an attempt to measure the quality of a chance. Taken over the course of a game, it is a sum measure of quality and quantity of chances. If you then compare these expected numbers with actual goal numbers (goals minus expected goals - or G-xG), you can then see how a team or player are performing in front of goal relative to expectations, getting us some way to answering the question: Are they making the most of their chances, or squandering them?

If you look at the table on the left, below the black home/away bar, you’ll see that Bowen’s 11 games outpace Gomes’ at each end of the pitch: creating chances v not conceding chances, scoring goals v not letting in goals. But even with that, or - I should say - in addition to it, Bowen’s teams have also been outperforming their expectations. Bowen’s 11 games come in at +2.3 over expected goals, while the first 11 games of the season saw Reading underperform expected goals by -3.18.

To put it simply, Bowen’s team has been finishing their chances. Gomes’ team, as we all remember, struggled to do so.

We can see this in another way by looking at raw xG wins for each manager. In their first 11 games, both managers’ teams achieved six outright wins in xG, a possible 18 points each. From those six games, Bowen’s Reading won 13 points, while Gomes’ gained only six. In those six contests under Gomes, Reading’s G-xG was -2.96 vs +1.01 for the opponents.

In the six under Bowen, Reading was +2.41 vs -.59 for the opponents. Against Charlton, Reading won the xG by .74 and gained zero points from the actual contest. By contrast, Reading beat Derby by only .18 and won all three points. (Hello, referee.) If Reading had equalled their raw xG points from games 12-22 in games 1-11, they would’ve been on 15 points heading into the international break, tied with Derby County for 13th in the league.

Moving beyond managers to look at all 24 games, Reading’s opponents slightly exceeded expectations (+.86) while Reading struggled (-3.41) in the first half of the season. In the 12 games since, Reading have got firmly on top of expectations (+3.54) while Reading’s opponents have struggled mightily in front of goal, to the tune of -6.81. (A happy tune, as far as we’re all concerned.)

Much of this has come in the current three-game winning streak, with a modest but welcome +1.45 for Reading and an eye-popping -6.36 for Reading’s opponents. That’s an average of 2.12 goals below the goal expectations of their performance. If we can hold every opponent to that the rest of the season, the new year (and subsequent promotion) will be happy indeed.

And sure, some of our opponents’ underperforming is down to our defence - just as our opponents deserve some credit for our long underperforming. But if we were QPR or Preston fans, I imagine we’d be rueing the fact that our players couldn’t put their shots just half a meter to the right or left. And if we were Derby fans, we’d most certainly have been talking about penalties. Thankfully, though, we’re Reading fans, and we’re on the come up because our finishing numbers are coming up.

When I first worked up some basic G-xG numbers for Reading players at the end of September (just before the Fulham disaster), Reading’s four main strikers (then George Puscas, Lucas Joao, Yakou Meite and Lucas Boye) were a combined -3.88. They had four of the five lowest scores on the team.

The end of October was no better for those four, but in came Sam Baldock after the international break with a personal +.25 to get the five of them up to a collective -3.77. By the end of November, with goals from Baldock and Puscas, they scratched their way up to -2.74.

Fast forward to now, the end of 2019 and what we hope is the beginning of Reading’s ascent up the league, those five forwards are a combined -.58, and one of them has made it all the way up to second on the team. All that to say: in the last three months, Reading’s main group of forwards have outperformed goal expectations by +3.3.

To state the obvious: As most chances fall to forwards, them making the most of their chances is helpful.

And we can see this problem of Reading’s forwards underperforming with chances created by taking a broad look at the league as well. Using data from WhoScored on shot/goal location, we can look at G-xG in the six-yard box, the penalty area, and outside the box for every team in the league.

When I first did this at the beginning of December, Reading were -2.35 overall and were the only team in the league underperforming inside the six-yard box. If you look at the table below, Reading are now up to -.24, a lift of +2.11 just within the month of December, but are still the only team in the league not overperforming within the six-yard box. The ONLY team.

Meanwhile, Reading are second in the league from outside the box, thanks in large part to Ejaria and Obita, to only West Brom, whose numbers are - frankly - absurd. (Going into 2020, would you rather be West Brom, having outshot expectations by that much thus far, or Leeds, having underscored so far? Either one. Either one is the answer.)

If we look at the table for only Reading players, we’ll see our six-yard problem isn’t only on the strikers. Reading’s centre backs have also spurned some chances in there. But Reading’s centre backs don’t get paid to finish chances. Reading’s strikers do. And while their numbers are not great yet, they are better than they were. So it shouldn’t be any wonder that Reading’s position in the table is, too.

Now I know, even with my caveats at the beginning, someone is going to read what I’ve written and say to me that Bowen is the one who deserves the credit for the team finishing better. But that is, in essence, giving him special credit for playing Baldock when Joao and Boye were both injured and then playing Joao when Puscas and Baldock were both injured. I’d rather give Baldock and Joao the credit for their finishes.

And I am confident that Mark Bowen would do the same.

(Huh? You see what I did there?)

(Nailed it.)

Here’s hoping the climb is not finished.